By Ben York – Curt Miller had a detailed, inspiring vision for the Sun when he was named head coach in December of 2015.
“Build the program into a championship team,” Miller reflected with confidence and a smile. “It sounds cliché, but that’s been our goal from day No. 1. We also want to build sustainable success. When I took over, the longest-tenured player on our team was heading into her fourth season. We want our core to mature and grow together in the prime of their careers.”
That’s exactly what the franchise is doing, and it has Sun fans buzzing.
After a midseason trade, the team exploded during the second half of 2016 season while making a serious run at the postseason. Connecticut went 11-7 in their final 18 games, good for the third-best record in the entire WNBA during that stretch.
“The part that excited us the most is that no one wanted the season to end,” Miller said. “They all wanted to keep playing. We felt we really started to come together in those months. The locker room was right, and the chemistry and culture we’ve been talking about truly started to take shape.”
That momentum continued in the off-season as the starting backcourt of Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas—a duo that combines for 25 points, eight assists and six boards per game—were both re-signed to multi-year deals. And not only did they acquire forward Lynetta Kizer from the Fever after a stellar year, they jumped back into the first round of the 2017 WNBA Draft with the No. 8 overall pick.
Indeed, those moves were priorities for Miller and the Sun, but the second-year coach says there are more that no one is talking about.
“We’re really excited about Reshanda Gray,” Miller added. “She’s coming into camp motivated and ready to prove people wrong. We’re looking for Jonquel Jones to continue her strong finish to 2016. I think people saw what she could do when she scored 20 points in 20 minutes in D.C.”
Jones was one of four dynamic Sun rookies in 2016 [Morgan Tuck, Rachel Banham, Courtney Williams] that Miller feels is poised and ready to take the next step.
“Banham was never really healthy and gutted her way through some tough injuries before we shut her down,” said Miller. “She never was able to truly show what she is capable of. And Courtney [Williams] started to find her groove in the second half of last season as one of the best guards off the bench in the WNBA. It was important to keep them together with our core, and think they’ll mesh well with the new pieces we’ve added.”
Unfortunately, not everything in the off-season went exactly according to plan. The Sun managed to keep their starting backcourt together, but Chiney Ogwumike’s injury meant their frontcourt would look vastly different.
“The plan was to play Chiney and Jonquel [Jones] together quite a bit,” said Miller. “They’re both versatile, have great length and are solid rim protectors. People laughed when I said it last year, but I truly believe if Jonquel was in this year’s draft class, she would be the No. 1 pick. But the addition of a young, tough post in Lynetta [Kizer], who is coming off her best season as a pro, will help after the loss of Chiney—a player you can’t really replace.”
As the 2017 WNBA Draft approaches, the addition of the No. 8 pick gives the Sun an enhanced amount of flexibility—both with their roster now and in the future. That is to say, the decision to go in a more “youthful” direction is a deliberate one for Miller and the Sun.
Case in point: By all accounts, the Sun will head into the draft and training camp with no one over age 27. For comparisons sake, the majority of players in last year’s WNBA Finals between the Sparks and Lynx were in their 30s.
“We know we have a young, bold and inexperienced group,” said Miller. “We’re getting younger as other teams are getting older. That’s exciting to us in regards to what we’re trying to build. At the same time, we’re realistic about things—cautiously optimistic. I’ve always said you can’t have a championship team without a championship locker room, and I love where our locker room is at now. There are a lot of players with a chip on their shoulder, looking to prove something as the season draws near.
“We love that.”